When people say Anchorage is a hotbed for cross-country skiing, the "hot" part usually isn't literal. But December temperatures in the 40s make you wonder.
Warm, wet conditions have chased this weekend's Besh Cup ski races from Kincaid Park to Fairbanks. Sunday's second annual Solstice Tour of Trees will see more walkers than skiers on Kincaid's Mize Loop. And the park's snowmaking system is on hold until lower temperatures arrive.
But scant snow and marginal trail conditions aren't threatening the U.S. Cross Country Championships, slated to begin at Kincaid in less than three weeks.
"We feel very confident we can host this event," Joey Caterinichio, the chair of the national championships organizing committee.
Moving the championships elsewhere "is not even in the discussion," she said. "The weather looks promising to make more snow, and we do have enough of a base."
Kincaid's snowmaking loop was groomed Thursday morning, said Tamra Kornfield of the Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage. The West High ski team practiced there during the day and Junior Nordic skiers planned to be on the trails Thursday night, she said.
"It's pretty thin and there are some patches of brown," Kornfield said. "… There's still a good base and when it's frozen, we're able to scratch it up and make it skiable."
The season "started out so strong," Kornfield noted, but recent warm, wet weather has diminished the impact of that early snow.
Caterinichio has a couple of reasons for her confidence.
The forecast promises lower temperatures between now and the first of the year, and that will allow the production of man-made snow. "Anything under 30 (degrees), we can make snow," she said.
And even with minimal snow, trail groomers can furnish a loop of 2.5 to 2.7 kilometers, Caterinichio said. She recalled a recent championship race series in Vermont, where skiers made do with a 1-kilometer loop.
"It's not ideal, but I do think 2.5K can be covered, and if we can get 5K, that'd be great," Caterinichio said.
Two of the four national-championship races are sprints, which are held on a short loop anyway. The other two are distance races, including mass-start 20K and 30K races on Jan. 7.
At stake are national titles, prize money and, for the men especially, the potential of earning spots on the U.S. Olympic team. Several of the nation's top women, including Anchorage's Sadie Bjornsen, clinched spots on the team with early season World Cup successes in Europe and won't be at Kincaid for the national championships.
Many skiers will come to Anchorage from the Lower 48. They are no doubt looking at temperatures in Anchorage and wondering whether the races will happen or not, but as Caterinichio pointed out, that's what it is like to be a cross-country skier in a world where snow and cold are no longer dependable.
"It's frustrating being a skier these days," she said. "All around the world, sites are like this. People are starting to accept this happens. Instead of panicking and canceling (trips), they are trusting people like us to tell them we can do it."
While climate change has impacted the sport in recent years, skiers have always had to be adaptable when faced with unfavorable conditions. A West High graduate, Caterinichio remembers high school teams riding buses to Turnagain Pass for races during the snow-challenged winter of 1985-86.
"In 1985 we skied at Turnagain Pass every weekend," she said. "In the 1990s, there were times we were skiing on Beach Lake with no snow."
Kornfield said some of that adaptability make be needed for Sunday's second annual Solstice Tree Tour on Kincaid's Mize Loop. With trails more icy than snowy, she expects to see more walkers than skiers.
"We recommend people bring ice grips," Kornfield said. "With the last couple of years, I think everybody has several pairs of those."